Four Jews

Knowing I must act against antisemitism, but not sure how, I have been reading books by Jews. I will challenge antisemitism when I hear it, and with Amos Oz I draw the line at challenges to Israeli policy which would make the State of Israel’s continuation as a safe place for Jews impossible. So I cannot support a right of return for all Palestinian refugees. I see the reasons for the different names- if they are Palestinians, they are a small oppressed minority under the Israelis. If they are “Arabs”, they are part of the people who sought to destroy Israel immediately the UN voted to establish two states on the territory of the former British mandate.

I read Oz’s account of the siege of the Jewish area of Jerusalem in A Tale of Love and Darkness. He was eight. His cousin had been murdered in Auschwitz. He describes having a bucket of water per person, sometimes, sometimes not, and people he knew being killed by snipers. His seeking of that two State solution, his mourning of two oppressed peoples set against each other, inspires me.

I have been reading Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It has a vast cast of characters and a helpful list of them at the end. It includes Hitler, who ceases to be a great man as soon as his troops start losing, describing his thoughts and feelings and how his underlings see him. It includes a journey to the gas chamber from the moment of boarding the cattle truck, to the panic as people are packed into the dark room.

And it has the only account  of the joy and wonder of scientific discovery I have seen in a novel. Victor Shtrum has a conversation about politics with friends where they allow themselves to speak freely, and ever after the thought of that conversation tortures him. Is his friend’s brother an agent provocateur? Has he been arrested? But the free conversation leads to a moment of inspiration. There have been experimental results which have not fitted the current theory. Are the results merely anomalous? That evening he has a flash of inspiration integrating the old understanding with the new results, and over the following days he works on a mathematical proof of his theory.

Then he is denounced for polluting Soviet science with Talmudic speculation.

Grossman was a fearless journalist, telling the story of the troops at the front as they wished. He portrays a vile, corrupt Commissar, Getmanov, and loyal Communists interrogated in the Lubyanka. It is a brave book, suppressed under Khrushchev, surviving miraculously.

An Interrupted Life, the diaries of Etty Hillesum, are a mystic journey to service of God in love of all, including the German soldier as the Nuremberg laws bite, and a clear-eyed acceptance of reality. She describes her self-induced abortion and encounters with public spirited citizens challenging her presence in a pharmacy. Is it against the law? It is not, she explains, courteously.

And now I have started The Story of the Jews, by Simon Schama. He begins in 5th century BCE Elephantine, where Jewish soldiers serve the Persian occupation of Egypt, and are expelled when the Persian empire begins to fray. They built their own temple for sacrifice. Contradicting the Seperatist story of Ezra Nehemiah and Haggai, Schama tells another story of living in the company of neighbouring cultures, where it was possible to be Jewish and Egyptian, as after it would be possible to be Jewish and Dutch or Jewish and American, possible, not necessarily easy or simple, to live the one life in balance with the other, to be none the less Jewish for being the more Egyptian, Dutch, British, American.

These books which I love are eclectic, and I draw no conclusions from them about Jews as a whole; but I am more determined to be a good ally against antisemitism.


I have two desires: to hide away and not be noticed, and to let my Effulgence shine forth that I may be admired. My former friend noticed this years ago, remarking that I wanted to blend into the background in the most eye-catching way possible, and his remarking on it helped me see it. The contradictoriness of it befuddled me, and both desires seemed ridiculous or reprehensible, as there is nothing I need hide from (I lectured myself sternly) and I have nothing particular worth showing off. George- Don’t do that.

If I dislike these desires, I am uncomfortable whether I achieve both or neither. I have been so uncomfortable in my own skin, second-guessing every desire and every act. I am wasting my life, hiding like this; showing off when I have so little to show off appears foolish. And yet both are necessary, to protect myself as I see fit, and to take risks and give service. I could hardly believe it: I value being inconsistent, but how could I be so contradictory? So I half-understood what I wanted, condemned it, and was paralysed.

It felt, with my friend on Saturday, saying it so bluntly, admitting both desires coexist, that this was new. I have both desires, and that they were opposite ceased to be a barrier to seeing them. Either might be fitting, in different circumstances. The self-concept is a particular steady, reasonable human being with particular admirable, consistent qualities- obviously a myth. The organismic self is mercurial, ad hoc, inconsistent, unpredictable.

How on Earth did we evolve the capacity to be conflicted?

This is my spiritual journey- finding who I am, and coming to accept it. I am finding it hard work. It takes my intellect, love and good will. I am reading Etty Hillesum’s diary, and have just read the fabulous entry from 3 July 1942.

I must admit a new insight into my life and find a place for it: what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that. They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. She writes of the Nuremberg laws, of the blisters on her feet because she cannot use trams and must walk, how she cannot go out of the city, use any patch of grass which are all labelled as parks; go to non-Jews’ houses, though she broke that law; go to greengrocers, so that she would queue for permitted shops and get nothing. It is ghastly. The long entry ends with a German soldier. I shall have to pray for this German soldier. Out of all those uniforms one has been given a face now. There will be other faces too, in which we shall be able to read something we understand: that German soldiers suffer as well. There are no frontiers between suffering people, and we must pray for them all. Goodnight.

I find life difficult, and have particular sorrows. I do not envy hers. We looked at a couple having coffee together, two men. I wondered if it was a first or second date. He thought it might be a pre-date, the two of them “meeting as friends” but there is so much going on under the surface, now clearly surfacing. Mmm. Gay male couples can be so direct and immediate. Two women can dance around each other, getting no closer, for ages. He wondered if a straight man would notice. Some would, some wouldn’t, I suppose. There are some allies. Around lunchtime, one went to get another coffee, and the other wondered if he might have wine. I restrained the impulse to encourage him.

Etty accepts the fact of her own death, and is enabled to Live: I accept it all as one mighty whole.

Yes, we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell and Earth and Life and Death and all of history. The externals are simply so many props; everything we need is within us. And we have to take everything that comes: the bad with the good, which does not mean we cannot devote our life to curing the bad. But we must know what motives inspire our struggle, and we must begin with ourselves, every day anew.

Wow. It is stunning stuff. I am embracing my own contradictoriness. Both desires are acceptable. I might pursue either and delight in it, escaping being conflicted. Brains are plastic after all. How can I cease to resist myself? I have this spiritual path, and I must follow it.


Dietrich BonhoefferTerry went into the chapel, and I went towards the garden; but seeing a man in a workshop layering clay onto a bust, I went to join him. It is his first. He has come to the abbey on an icon-painting retreat before, and now he works on this head. He is sculpting Dietrich Bonhöffer, and is unsure about the eyes. I understand that the normal gap between eyes is the same width as the eye itself. “Oh, that’s useful, do you mind?” He holds his knife up close to my eyes, thumb out to measure it.

So attuned to Rules am I that I feel some apprehension when he refers to “Herbert” rather than “Brother Herbert”- Oh!. Yes, I suppose one could call him that.

The reading before Compline tells us to imagine a circle of compassion, and stand at the edge of it, so that there is no edge; stand with the outcast and the poor. Indeed, that is at the heart of Christian maturity- there is no out-group, no Bad people.

After Compline and meditation, Anthony says that he had just seen an email from a doctor, a friend of his, whom three years ago he had brought into the Church, who having learned of that Chinese child who had his eyes gouged out could no longer believe in God. How could a good God allow that? My answer is that there are human characteristics, without which we would be lesser- human drive and energy- which may be perverted to that. Anthony fears he will dream of that child. Oh, No! Dream of the circle of compassion.

Sam the sculptor’s answer is that of Etty Hillesum, File:Michael Portillo by Regents College cropped.jpgwho pitied the Nazis who hated her and shouted and tried to make her ashamed and fearful; and threw a card from the train, “Tell them we went into the camps singing”. I think of a man who was walking in the station when someone jumped up on his back and slashed his forehead, just above the eyebrows, with a knife. He lost all trust in the world, and his life was ruined.

Brother Herbert says that originally monasteries sang all the psalms in a week, and now some miss parts out, such as Psalm 137. How can we sing of dashing a child against the stones? I know the strength of my own rage, though I tend to turn it inwards rather than outwards. I like to think that all of me, that rage included, is within that circle of compassion.

Sam’s friend is obsessed with Noah. He has been to Mount Ararat and measured rocks there, seeking evidence of the Ark, and believes that if such evidence could be found the Bible would thereby be proved. “We might think that ridiculous”, he says- well, of course, I would.

When we were talking of faces being asymmetrical, people being asymmetrical, I thought of Michael Portillo. Narrating a TV programme, he said he had known his face was asymmetrical as a child, and when he talked of it his voice shook. He had known this as an ugly defect, though it does not appear striking in him, particularly. What pain someone can endure from childhood!

Etty HillesumA preacher should say nothing he would be ashamed to say in the presence of burning children, said Sam. He is ordained. He left his project working with children who had been groomed and raped in Keighley, children whose lives were ruined, to write a PhD on Dietrich Bonhöffer; and now is sculpting him.

“Post-modernism started in the camps- its doubt and cynicism,” he said. Um. To me Post-modernism is liberation, leaving behind the One Interpretation of any object or work, or the intention of the artist, and indeed the One Truth- democratising it so everyone’s interpretation has value. We discussed how drawing someone, or sculpting them, helps us to see them more clearly.

Why would we tell the story of Noah to small children? Violet, an atheist, has been having fun with it: the story shows God is an idiot for creating such a wicked world, and a monster for killing everyone. Perhaps that is the point: this is a cruel world, where ghastly things happen to good people, and everyone getting wiped out is an illustration of that. Then God calls Noah, and saves him and his family: those who obey God will be saved. And there I dislike it: Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz; though it killed only her body, and her spirit and example live on. It is one side of Christianity- sheep and goats, damned and saved, Good and Bad, in and out, rejecting that Circle of Compassion where everyone must be brought in. If we can know the cruelty of existence from early childhood, then nuns can operate Magdalen laundries happy in the knowledge that they serve God.

The image of the animals two by two is strange and lovely.